Inside the VG VSS Unity cabin in flight, where my work will take place. (credit: Virgin Galactic)
My suborbital life, part 2: Objectives, timeline, training
by Alan Stern Monday, October 23, 2023
Late next week I’ll be undertaking my first spaceflight, flying a training and “risk reduction” mission funded by my employer, the Southwest research Institute (SwRI). This flight is in preparation for a NASA-SwRI suborbital research mission that is coming up for me as well, hopefully next year. That research flight will feature two experiments: one to assess the efficacy of the spacecraft for doing suborbital astronomy, and one to take physiological data on an experimenter undergoing suborbital spaceflight.
It is unusual, maybe even unique, to fly a space mission purely as a training exercise. But that’s a testament to the increasing normalization of spaceflight. As a first step in making the very most of this opportunity, my flight team (most notably, SwRI colleague and planetary scientist Dr. Dan Durda) and I have developed the following objectives for this first flight:
SwRI Virgin Galactic First Flight Primary Objectives
Spaceport America Researcher Facility Use and Workflow Familiarization
NASA Research Flight Activities Timing Determinations
Practice Translation and Positioning with Astronomy Payload Mockup
We then mapped the various objectives into a flight timeline centered in the roughly three minutes of useful time to conduct work between the two high-G portions of the flight, namely ascent powered flight and re-entry. That three-minute timeline in its present (mature but not finalized) format is based on a series of 20-second-long time blocks as follows:
SwRI Virgin Galactic First Flight Timeline
Set Chrono to Zero Ck Bio On Eyewear On
G Management High Fists & Earth Obs MECO: Start Timer
Ck Bio: On 5s Earth Obs Egress, Park Lap Belt Eyewear Stow
Retrieve/Strap XCM RH Point XCM 10s W1 2R Translate to W2 3R
Point XCM 10s W2 3R Translate to W3 3L Point XCM 10s W3 3L
Temp Stow XCM 2R Unstow, OSS SwRI 3R
Earth/Overview Effect W3R
Crew PAO 30s
Ingress, Buckle XCM Entry Stow Ck Bio On (Eyewear On), Earth Obs
Training for the flight has so far included Zero-G Corporation familiarization flights, high-G training runs in centrifuges and F-104 Starfighter aircraft, and repeated timeline procedures run throughs and refinements; it will shortly also include in-cabin ascent, entry, and timeline procedures runs and refinements in a high-fidelity cabin mockup of VG’s VSS Unity.
Our objective in developing requirements, procedures timelines, and training runs is to maximize the value of this first spaceflight and to minimize risks to performance on the second flight while doing NASA experiment work. And while there is always more one could do, I believe we have a solid plan both for flight ops and for training to perform those that’s commensurate with the low cost of this mission.
Of course, the proof of that will come at showtime, in space, high above southern New Mexico!
Alan Stern is a planetary scientist and aerospace executive. He is a former NASA Associate Administrator for Science, and a former board chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He has now been a part of 30 NASA, ESA, and commercial spaceflight flight mission teams, 15 of those as mission or instrument Principal Investigator, including the almost $1 billion New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.
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